With 1:53 remaining, Caleb Love drilled his fourth 3-pointer of the night to put his Tar Heels up 86-79, putting the cherry on top of his career performance.
Somehow, the Blue Devils rose from the ashes, scrapping their way to a one-possession game. Trailing 89-87 with 15 seconds left, Duke had a chance to tie or win it and write a new page in Tobacco Road lore.
Who better than Wendell Moore Jr., who hit a game-winner as time expired last year to down North Carolina, to have the ball in this spot. But the magic ran out for Moore, who was called for a traveling violation as he drove to the rim, and the Blue Devils' nightmare season continued. The Tar Heels escaped Cameron Indoor Stadium with a 91-87 win Saturday night, powered by Love's game-high 25 points and seven assists.
"Caleb Love was outstanding," Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "I thought the kids that played in this game were all good, but he stepped it up above all the others and did an outstanding job."
With 21 seconds remaining, Jalen Johnson rebounded his own block and led the fast break, finding DJ Steward for a layup to cut the Tar Heel lead to 88-87. Leaky Black went 1-for-2 from the line with 15 seconds left, giving Duke (7-7, 5-5 in the ACC) its chance to win the game.
Duke had fallen behind 60-48 early in the second half, but it would storm back to tie the game at 77 with 4:43 left in the contest thanks to a Matthew Hurt turnaround jumper. But on the ensuing possession, Hurt committed its fifth foul, meaning Duke would need to play crunch time without its leading scorer.
Last season’s matchup between Duke and North Carolina (12-6, 7-4) at Cameron Indoor Stadium featured an overflowing student section, and you could hardly hear yourself think over the rowdy home crowd. But this year, there were no Cameron Crazies, and you could hear little more than shoes squeaking.
"It gives us extra energy, extra confidence," junior forward Joey Baker said of the typical Cameron atmosphere. "It gets really loud in Cameron, especially the UNC game, so that aspect was missed [this year]."
With 7:48 remaining in the first half and Duke trailing 28-21, Henry Coleman III checked into the contest. Despite having just 22 minutes of game action prior to Saturday, Coleman immediately made his presence felt.
On his first possession, Coleman found Jeremy Roach for a 3-pointer to notch his first career assist. A few minutes later, playing as Duke’s center against a menacing Tar Heel frontcourt, the 6-foot-7 freshman had a strong finish inside off of a backdoor cut to tie the game at 30. On the next two possessions, Coleman drew a charge and came down with an offensive rebound that led to a Johnson layup and Duke’s first lead of the night.
"[Coleman] has worked hard all year. I've seen it in practice and even in the little spurts where he's come in this year," senior guard Jordan Goldwire said. "I knew he was a good player. He came into battle for us and we needed it."
Cameron surely would have erupted for the unexpected performance from Coleman, just like it did for Justin Robinson last season. But this time around, there was no jolt of energy inside the empty arena, and the Blue Devils failed to keep their momentum. Ferocious dunks from Day’Ron Sharpe and Armando Bacot gave North Carolina a 41-39 halftime advantage.
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Coleman would make his presence felt in the second half as well, and his four total points matched his season total coming into the game. Baker also had his best game of the season Saturday, scoring a season-high 11 points in 18 minutes.
Krzyzewski opted to sit normal starters Goldwire and Johnson in favor of Roach and center Mark Williams, but this switch would not give the Blue Devils the boost Krzyzewski desired. In the first three minutes of the game, Duke committed four turnovers, allowing the Tar Heels to jump out to a quick 11-3 lead.
"People aren't starting and they have to keep earning it," Krzyzewski said. "We have all these young guys, and you have to keep earning [starting roles]. That's been a part of our program."
There’s always plenty to play for when North Carolina comes to Cameron Indoor Stadium, but Saturday night’s contest had additional importance for Duke: It was a borderline must-win game if the Blue Devils want to make the NCAA tournament. They will have two chances to reverse their fortunes next week, taking on Notre Dame Tuesday and N.C. State next Saturday.